Political stars of the North Country

For a region lacking obvious advantages – wealth, population, long-established institutions – the North Country has produced some impressive politicians, among them Silas Wright (1795-1847), William Wheeler (1819-1887) and Roswell Flower (1835-1899).

Historians may remember Silas Wright as nothing more than a lieutenant in Martin Van Buren’s political machine, but he was once ranked the equal of Washington and Lincoln, at least by the novelist Irving Bacheller, who, like Wright, was a product of St. Lawrence County.

Bacheller once wrote that in the North Country (which he defined as the area between Plattsburgh and Carthage), “men are still created free and equal. There, the only uncommon person is the one that hasn’t common sense. There, no matter what his dress and manners may be, a man is as good as his heart and no better.”

While one could argue that a region shapes a politician’s character, Bacheller claimed that it was a politician who shaped his region’s character.

“When and how came this spirit of my native hills and valleys?” Bacheller asked in a 1917 magazine article. “Largely, I think, from one special source. The most of it came in the summer of 1819 with Silas Wright, then a young man. He settled in Canton and opened a law office.”

Wright would go on to serve in Congress, as state comptroller, in the U.S. Senate and as governor. But out of modesty, obligations to his family and loyalty to others, he declined as many offices and honors as he accepted, wrote Bacheller, who based a novel, “A Light in the Clearing,” upon Wright’s biography.

In the North Country, wrote Bacheller, Wright was the exemplary man, and the stories told about him were not-so-subtle exhortations to virtue.

“If I thought my task too hard or too mean, I was told Silas Wright used to do it,” he wrote. “If I were inclined to pride, I was reminded of the example of the great commoner. He entered the imaginations of the young in the North Country. His soul is still in the homes and courts and schools in the North.”

Bacheller was not alone in writing fiction based upon New York state politicians. Harold Frederic wrote at least three novels based on the life of the state’s Civil War governor, Horatio Seymour. By the time Roswell Flower and William Wheeler achieved prominence, novelists such as Henry Adams and William Dean Howells were treating politicians with contempt – when, that is, they were being treated at all. So our knowledge of them comes not from fiction but local histories.

Flower, a Watertown native, was governor from 1892 to 1895, long enough to preside over the creation of the Adirondack Park and the passage of the constitutional amendment declaring all Forest Preserve lands “forever wild.” And although the Blue Line was not extended to include Lake George until 1931, Flower initiated steps to protect it by outlawing the sale of publicly owned islands to private citizens in 1893.

Flower’s efforts to protect the Adirondacks rested upon work begun in the 1870s by the first Adirondack Park study commission and its leaders, Verplanck Colvin and William Almon Wheeler, the Malone native who would later become Rutherford B. Hayes’ vice president.

Like Flower, Wheeler believed that the Adirondack forests should be protected, but managed in the interests of the state’s coffers rather than left “forever wild.”

And according to Herbert C. Hallas, a retired teacher and lawyer who has written the recently published “William Almon Wheeler: Political Star of the North Country,” Wheeler was among the first to argue that New York should support the economies of the Adirondack settlements and to oppose the creation of a park devoted entirely to wilderness. Such a park, he argued, would be “useless and unproductive.”

Today, we remember Rutherford B. Hayes for becoming president under circumstances that anticipated the “selection” of George W. Bush over Al Gore. With the electoral votes of a few southern states in dispute, a commission was created to choose the victor. Hayes was named president, but on the condition that federal troops be withdrawn from the South.

If the presidency of Hayes is all but forgotten, imagine the fate of Wheeler’s vice presidency! If he is less well known even in his native North Country than he should be, Hallas argues, it is because his character was traduced after his death by a local newspaper editor, who happened to dislike him. Future North Country political stars: You’re forewarned.

Tony Hall is editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.